Pakistan’s month long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorists, believed to be sheltered by a sub-clan of the powerful Wazir tribe that inhabits the area along Afghanistan’s border in South Waziristan, has reached a stalemate, and there has still been no public announcement indicating the capture of a single al-Qaeda operative.
What began as a series of bloody clashes between Pakistan’s regular army and paramilitary scouts in mid-March ended with some fifty soldiers being killed. According to Pakistani army accounts, sixty-three militants were also killed and an additional 163 “terrorists” captured. Moreover, there had been considerable hype earlier regarding the possible presence near the fighting of Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, or of an important Uzbek leader. But subsequent reports of captured or killed “foreign” fighters of Arab, Uzbek or Chechen origin provided no proof to the Pakistani public that any such figures had been in fact been present.
On April 20 a Pakistani newspaper, The News, reported that Pakistan Army spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan had refused to confirm widespread reports claiming that all the “non-Pakistanis” now under detention are Afghan refugees and not, as had been claimed earlier, “Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens or (Uighur) Chinese.” Sultan said that “the full picture” would emerge once the investigations are completed. He dismissed the reports as “speculative,” and likewise rejected other reports that claimed only 28 of the 163 detainees had been declared “suspicious” enough to be interrogated, the rest being “largely innocent.”
As of April 20, the Pakistan army was still relying on a lashkar – or tribal militia – of some 2,000 Wazir tribesmen to flush out al-Qaeda terrorists and their tribal supporters in villages west and southwest of Wana, the headquarters of the South Waziristan tribal agency. The latest news from local news wires and newspapers indicates that, after demolishing the empty houses of two suspected tribal supporters of al-Qaeda, the lashkar, following two days of operations, has demanded an extension of the April 20 deadline for the fugitives to surrender.
According to the Pakistani newspaper The Nation, authorities have extended the surrender deadline for “another three days,” until April 23. In the course of these three days, the jirga, or assembly of tribal elders, is to discuss “the modalities” for the peaceful surrender of the five wanted harborers of al-Qaeda terrorists. The lashkar is to simultaneously continue its operation against their supporters. A report said that “some of the top wanted people” are already engaged in negotiations for their peaceful surrender to the jirga.
The lashkar is comprised of members of the same Wazir clan, a sub-clan of which is allegedly harboring al-Qaeda and its supporters. The tribal militia reached an agreement with Pakistani army and government authorities to search for the fugitives in the wake of the March onslaught by the military. The onslaught ended in a bloody stalemate during which suspected al-Qaeda militants reportedly escaped through tunnels connecting the mud brick fortress-like compounds in which they were ensconced.
Thereafter, a “wait-and-see” period ensued during which jirgas convened meetings with local government authorities in Wana and in Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province. It is a time honored tribal tradition that the tribes themselves volunteer to turn over wanted fugitives living among them so as to avoid collective punishment.
On April 2, however, news reports indicated that Pakistan was sending fresh troops to bolster its push against al-Qaeda. About 3,500 new troops were sent to reinforce the more than 13,000 military and paramilitary soldiers already deployed in South Waziristan. Not only that, but for the first time since 2002 Pakistani forces began closing in on the Shawal Valley, a forested mountain stronghold ranging in height from 4,000 to 11,000 feet. The Valley lies some thirty miles to the north of South Waziristan, in the sister tribal agency of North Waziristan, a region peopled more completely by the Wazir tribe. South Waziristan’s major tribal population includes the rival and equally powerful Mahsuds, who live in the central mountain tract away from the high plain of Wana.
A Pakistani journalist and expert on the region, Rahimullah Yusufzai, said that the Shawal Valley is one of the places suspected of being a hideout for Osama bin Laden. But the Pakistani military operation there is, at the moment, serving as a “blocking move” aimed at preventing militants from South Waziristan from fleeing to that area. Wazir tribal elders from that valley had earlier descended to the district headquarters of Bannu and offered full cooperation with the Pakistani army authorities.
Thousands of Pakistani military troops began to be deployed in late February in response to a U.S. Operation, the Mountain Storm “spring offensive,” to hunt for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda across the border in Afghanistan. But the current operation in South Waziristan did not begin in earnest until March 16.
Pakistani paramilitary forces belonging to the Frontier Corps – with elements from the famed South Waziristan Scouts created by the British colonials in the early 1900s – advanced on the three villages of Kaloosha, Shin Warsak and Azam Warsak, suspected of harboring al-Qaeda elements. These villages are smack on the trail to the Afghan province of Paktika. This author visited the province in the 1980s in the company of Mujahideen comprised of the same local Wazir tribal clans recruited by the Gailani group of the Afghan Resistance fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Over the next few days, some 5,000 Pakistani troops using heavy artillery and helicopter gunships fought a pitched battle with 400-500 tribesmen and suspected al-Qaeda terrorists, who used their defensive positions in the mud brick fortress-style compounds to hold the army at bay. Reports said that the militants used mortars, heavy machineguns and shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades against the Pakistani armored vehicles and helicopters.
Lt. General Safdar Hussain, who is the corps commander of the Pakistani troops deployed in the region, had admitted on March 21 that his troops were facing “extremely professional” opponents in almost impossible terrain. He added that his troops were being fired on from every direction and that it was not clear whether “the locals” were on the army’s side.
In fact, Hussain was merely reliving British colonial history, when such incursions by British Army in North and South Waziristan cost them hundreds of troops. The losses forced them to finally recognize that the local Wazirs and Mahsuds are the most formidable fighters among the score or so of Pashtun tribes.
That unexpected resistance by the militants prompted Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf to declare on March 18 that “a high-value” al-Qaeda member was possibly in the villages and that this explained the heavy resistance. Reinforced by similar comments from Pakistani military and intelligence officials, the media then speculated that Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, might be the “high-value” target since reports had been circulating that he had recently visited the area.
The U.S. media, keen to report on the Bush administration’s sudden new “spring offensive,” and its focus on Afghanistan and the flushing out of bin Laden, became obsessed with the possibility of al-Zawahiri being captured. There were for that reason many lead stories and analyses by so-called experts suggesting that al-Zawahiri had indeed finally been cornered. The Pentagon, however, maintained “a cautious reaction” to that bit of news.
Despite initial denials, the Pakistan military did finally admit to the presence of a dozen or so U.S. intelligence officials in the country, as well as to receiving surveillance and eavesdropping help from U.S. planes and satellites in the effort to nab al-Zawahiri.
But Brigadier Mahmood Shah, chief of security for the tribal areas, told reporters that Pakistani troops had discovered numerous tunnels under some of the fortress-like compounds used by the militants, including one that was over a mile long and that led to a stream. And hence, no al-Qaeda figure of any note was caught.
And Shah also conveyed an interesting angle regarding the apprehension of foreign fighters. The brigadier subsequently told reporters that Pakistani soldiers were having trouble distinguishing foreign militants from local tribesmen because many of these “foreigners” had settled in the region and spoke Pashtu, the local language. These foreigners are probably the remnants of the Mujahideen who flocked from other countries to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Further, it appears to this author, who traveled in the region during that period, that such “foreign militants” should have been discovered long ago if they indeed were followers of al-Qaeda. The area around Wana, which is located on an open plain, is more populated and accessible than other areas up in the mountains toward Afghanistan.
If, therefore, the costly March operation failed to deliver any real al-Qaeda terrorists, then the incursion into tribal territory by the Pakistani military may in fact have been a showpiece hastily arranged by President Musharraf, one intended to “please” the visiting U.S. secretary of state. Indeed, Colin Powell landed in Islamabad on March 17 and the following day bestowed “major non-NATO” ally status on Pakistan for its fight against terrorism. Coupled with recent revelations of Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation, the need for General Musharraf to please the United States has never been greater.
However, the possibility of additional military incursions into South and even North Waziristan, in the event that the tribal lashkar fails in the coming days to deliver the principal five harborers of al-Qaeda terrorists, remains a distinct possibility. The North West Frontier Province’s governor, Syed Iftikhar Hussain Shah, in a briefing before local reporters on April 19, said that “funds” are being delivered to al-Qaeda fugitives and their tribal supporters. Discounting speculation that any of the funding is coming from Afghanistan, he said that “bundles of U.S. dollars” have been found in their possession as well as Russian-made communication equipment and weapons.
Already, on April 19, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, Lt. General David Barno, praised Pakistan’s military operation. He said that it had “successfully disrupted” al-Qaeda’s network in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and that it had significantly thwarted the ability of the Taliban remnants to begin their much anticipated “spring offensive” into Afghanistan. At the same time, however, the U.S. army, engaged in its own spring offensive, one intended to hunt for Osama bin Laden from the Afghan side of the border, has now acknowledged that the Pakistani military action in South Waziristan has actually dispersed al-Qaeda terrorists based on the Pakistan side of the border. U.S. forces, therefore, can no longer hope to trap al-Qaeda terrorists in a “hammer and anvil” strategy as they had previously planned.